The NAACP’s Future

Against the Current, No. 118, September/October 2005

Malik Miah

The NAACP is one of the oldest civil rights organizations in the country. Founded in 1909, it played a leading role in opposing lynching laws and legal segregation until the demise of Jim Crow three decades ago .

Today it is struggling to be relevant to most African Americans. Many young political activists, not surprisingly, see the NAACP as irrelevant. Others label it as too legalistic and corporate to take on the extreme right wing political agenda in Washington today.

As a longtime previous member and now regular financial contributor to the organization, I believe the NAACP remains an important institution worth defending. Racism and discrimination remain alive and well. High unemployment, poor education and attacks on Black voting rights prove that a viable civil rights organization and movement are still urgently needed for society.

If an established mainstay of the civil rights era is permanently sidelined by the ruling elite in Washington and Wall Street, it would be a blow to all those fighting to protect and extend personal liberty of all Americans — our civil rights.

Can the NAACP be made viable and relevant? Yes — if it turns to the group’s predominantly working-class supporters who still contribute money as members or friends. No, if it continues to adapt to the business philosophy of the conservative establishment that runs the country.

Wrong Step

The appointment of a former Verizon communication executive, Bruce Gordon, as the new “CEO,” is a move in the wrong direction. It reflects a misguided belief that to defend civil rights for the average African American means becoming more oriented to the Black middle class, and the post-civil rights ideology of the new liberals in the Democratic Party “center.”

But becoming more “acceptable” to the right will not protect civil rights. President Bush has made clear he prefers the “real thing” — a Black business community that sees the dollar first, not civil rights.

The Republican Party shows its arrogance and disrespect by ignoring the NAACP and most established civil rights groups. Black conservatives have modest influence in the Black population, yet attack the NAACP as outdated at best. They argue for a “colorblind” approach, which places the onus of responsibility for the conditions of African Americans on ourselves.

President Bush has not attended an NAACP convention during his entire five years in office. The Republican National Committee Chairman, Ken Mehlman, who spoke at this year’s gathering in mid July, was the first top Republican to do so since 2000. His message was let’s move forward, put the past behind us, and support the Bush agenda of an “ownership society.”

Meanwhile Bush adjusted his busy schedule (during the same dates of the NAACP convention) to speak at the convention of Black middle-class professionals down at the Indiana Black Expo. He told the Black executives in Indianapolis that his policies had improved the test scores of Black children, and that his “ownership society” benefits African-American families.

“I see an America where every citizen owns a stake in the future of our country, and where a growing economy creates jobs and opportunity for everyone,” Bush told the 3,000 participants.

Bush only received 11% of the African American vote in the 2004 election and isn’t too concerned about a broader appeal.

In Milwaukee, at the NAACP convention, Bruce Gordon, told the delegates “I’m confident a relationship will be built with the White House.” Unlike his predecessor, Kweisi Mfume, who criticized the Bush agenda and called the Black conservatives who backed Bush as “ventriloquist’s dummies,” Gordon made clear that is the past.

The CEO Answer

In an interview published in the July 10 issue of the New York Times Magazine, Gordon elaborates on his new definition of civil rights and why he sees himself as an “economic rights” CEO.

When the reporter, Deborah Solomon, pointed out that he had not been a participant in the civil rights struggles of the past, Gordon replied, “I think we have to define civil rights more broadly. When I say civil rights, I am talking about economic rights.”

Economic rights in the sense Gordon means, however, are not the same as civil rights. Even under Jim Crow, African Americans had some limited political rights and could earn incomes in their segregated communities. What did not exist was equality of citizenship — which means equal access to political power, voting rights and economic opportunity, not only the latter.

Gordon’s reduction of civil rights to “economic rights” — for a prospering Black elite, not for Black working-class people who need full civil rights if their economic needs are to be met — is a gutting of the NAACP history and traditions.

Gordon went so far as to justify this shift of what civil rights are by also giving a false interpretation of the famous Malcolm X comment winning freedom “by any means necessary.” Gordon’s aim is to justify an olive branch to Bush and the right wing in the White House.

What Malcolm meant by his declaration “by any means necessary,” however, had nothing to do with Gordon’s interpretation. Malcolm was firm and clear in how he saw breaking down the barriers of inequalities — social, political and economic. He supported and advocated militant action.

Malcolm had no illusions how that would take place. He understood that without full equality, full self-determination, full economic power is impossible.

Mehlman offered his own olive branch to the august organization. He made a point that the Southern Strategy of the Republican Party begun in the 1960s was wrong, because it implied a rejection of African Americans from the Republican Party.

In his July 18 column, “An Empty Apology,” Bob Herbert of The New York Times exposed even that offer as fraudulent. “The GOP’s Southern strategy, racist at its core,” he notes, “still lives. At its heart, the Southern strategy remains the same, a cynical and remarkably successful divide-and- conquer strategy that nurtures the bigotry of whites and is utterly contemptuous of Blacks,” he adds.

One recent example from the 2004 presidential election was Florida Governor Jeb Bush’s decision to discourage and prevent African Americans from voting. It included a criminal investigation of Black voter turnout in Orlando that led to the indictment of the Democratic mayor. After the election, a year later, all the indictments were dropped.

In Georgia, voting now requires photo ID — the aim clearly being to suppress the Black, Latino, elderly and poor vote.

The Challenge

The challenge for the NAACP and old- line civil rights organizations is to actively oppose institutional racism, which still permeates society. The divide between poor and better off Blacks also continues to grow. The chasm between working-class Americans and the one percent of super-wealthiest Americans is even larger, as is racial and class polarization.

Redefining civil rights as “economic rights” or pushing an “ownership society” cannot change the facts of institutional discrimination and right wing ideology ever prevalent in mainstream America. Without civil rights — ending both legal and de facto discrimination — true economic rights cannot ever be achieved.

ATC 118, September-October 2005